Original church in Unity Cemetery was log building

Article courtesy of the Latrobe Bulletin. See original article here.

While the land for Unity Cemetery was purchased in 1774 and immediately utilized as a burial ground, the first church wasn’t built until around 1780.

That educated guess is supported by several sources, according to Mary Lou Townsend, executive director of the Latrobe Area Historical Society.

One of the most reliable sources is Agnes Sligh Turnbull, an author born and raised in New Alexandria. For her novel, “The Day Must Dawn,” she chose Hanna’s Town as the book’s setting, according to an excerpt from the Unity Cemetery and Chapel history book.

In “The Day Must Dawn,” Turnbull “describes what must have been the attitude of those frontier families who built” the first church:

“Toil and sacrifice had gone into it; prayers and tears had hallowed it. It had been in the eyes of the Scotch-Irish, far and wide, the sign and symbol of their ultimate conquering of the wilderness…

“Bare enough the building stood on its lofty hill, square and plain, like their own cabins; but a dignity invested it…”

Historians are unsure of the first building’s exact location, but it reportedly stood on the “level place back of the location of the first brick church,” according to information from the historical society. Built of logs, it was roughly 40 feet square.

“The trustees were meeting at Unity when they got word that Hanna’s Town was being attacked, and that was 1782,” Townsend told the Bulletin during an interview earlier this month. “So the church had to have been there a little bit before then.”

On the date of the attack – July 13, 1782 – the congregation was meeting formally for the first time to organize as Unity Church.

A courier on horseback delivered the news from Hanna’s Town, a roughly 6-mile trek over the hilly terrain. Unconfirmed reports indicate 20 men returned with the courier to Hanna’s Town, but they were too late as the Seneca tribe, numbering roughly 100 strong, had already departed. They took with them roughly 25 hostages captured at Miller’s Station, located in what is now Hempfield Township, roughly 4 miles from Unity Cemetery, according to information from the Unity Cemetery and Chapel history book.

The exact size of the congregation in the late 1700s and early 1800s is unknown, but many who gathered at Proctor’s Tent (Col. John Proctor) and later at the log church came from as far as 8 miles away.

The congregation undoubtedly grew, however, as a new wing was added onto either side of the church.

While the Presbyterians had informally worshipped together since the 1760s, a regularly installed pastor was not in place until 1790. Pastors who led the parishioners at the log church included Dr. John McPherrin (1790-1800), John Black (1800-1802) and William Speer (1803-1829).

The log church met a fiery end in 1829, when it burned to the ground.

According to information from the Unity Cemetery and Chapel history book, and Townsend, “a young boy stuffing straw into the church’s pot-bellied stove to warm the building” on a freezing cold morning let the fire get out of hand, thus destroying the building.

“Then when it burned and they built the new brick church, it would seat between 300 and 400 people, so it was a large church,” Townsend said.

A monument, erected in 1929 by Charles McLaughlin, and dedicated a year later, is believed to mark the location of the original Unity Church. McLaughlin erected this monument as a memorial to the old Unity Church.

While the exact location of the original log church is unknown, archaeology students from the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg investigated a handful of sites inside the cemetery in 2010 in an attempt to uncover any clues.

“They explored three different sites; one was around the stone that marks where supposedly the first log church was, and they really didn’t find anything other than odds and ends but nothing that pointed to the location of the building,” Townsend said. “The second place that they explored was the site of the second Unity church, and it was a larger brick church that was built a little bit down over the hill from where they thought the log church was.”

The students found shards of glass at their second search location, and additional testing indicated that some of the glass predated 1830, Townsend said, which is when the second church was built.

“Their theory is that that was actually the site of the first church, and when it burned, they rebuilt on the same spot,” Townsend said. “They can’t prove it, but that was their guess based on the glass that they found.”

The third site the students explored was where the old parsonage once stood.

“That’s pretty definite, there are pictures of the parsonage that help pinpoint where it was,” Townsend said. “That wasn’t built until around 1860, and it wasn’t torn down until the 1930s. By looking at the headstones and contours and so on, they were sure of that one.”